Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Reads

Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton
The Scar by China Mieville
Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Crash by J. G. Ballard

A lighter month. Sometimes I go through phases where I'm unable to concentrate to read. These phases usually mean, in substitution, a surfeit of comic books, movies, and rarely television (though, my TV watching has all but disappeared; there's nothing on anymore). End of April to the end of May, I watched a bunch of movies and read a bunch of comic books, but I'm not really tracking comics on this blog and for film, I'm reviewing them on Letterboxd (here). I had gotten about halfway through both Pandora's Star and The Scar in April when I simply gave up. Then, about a week ago, I decided to finish them. In other words, I read those 5 novels in about 10 days. Back up to speed, I suppose. 

Peter Hamilton and I have a storied history. I tried reading the first book of the massive Night's Dawn Trilogy way back in 2004, 2005? And promptly gave up after reading only 1/6 of the entire thing. It was just too big. I remember it being a bit silly, too, and I don't think I was prepared for the silliness (not in tone, but in subject matter). I then tried Pandora's Star again around 2008, 2010? and gave up roughly 100 pages into it. Pandora's Star, a 900 page monster, is only half of the story, with Judas Unchained being the concluding 1,000 page monster. I remember exactly where I had left off (though I started from the beginning) and pushed through, trying to remember the scale required for such a story and not to get discouraged from all the setup. This time around, I managed to push through and I finished the remaining 600 pages in about two days. I did like it, enough that I'm going to tackle the concluding volume after taking a break. I liked the scale, the ideas, the momentum. I also enjoyed how the size of Hamilton's canvas meant that the disparate story threads could mimic genre conventions, such as the cop's seemingly discrete arc is a murder mystery. There's also political machinations similar to the shit that Game of Thrones fans seem to fetishize.

For a good chunk of Hamilton's novel, I attempted to understand and articulate a political throughline in the novel. Does Hamilton's vision of the future valorize or condemn a specific political structure? One of the major villains -- if he can be said to be villainous -- works for a anarcho-socialist terrorist group, but when provided a soapbox, Hamilton depicts him with a rather dispassionate eye, letting his argument sound quite convincing. [Anarcho-socialism seemed to have been a theme this month, as we'll see in both Mieville's and Banks' novel.] However, the Confederation, the organizing political party of this future world, seems extravagantly capitalistic, with a small number of ultra-rich families controlling the otherwise democratically elected President. Even still, Hamilton doesn't depict this oligarchy with anything other than the same impassive tone. I wonder, then, if this is the same political incoherence that mars Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises or if this is purposeful, an attempt at objectivity, to show the positive and negative aspects of political structures. If that is the case, then this is not successful, as Hamilton only depicts the anarcho-socialists engaging in terrorism and only depicts the oligarchy as corrupt, distant and disconnected from the everyday reality. There's also a range of planets that have monolithic purpose (a trope of science fiction that drives me nuts) such as an entirely industrial planet consisting of endless factories. This is implied to be a necessary but unfortunate result of the late late stage capitalism the Confederation is built on. So I'm left without a stable ground to stand on, politically speaking, with Pandora's Star. I'm guessing, and I'm probably correct, that the next volume will conclude in some pan-humanity effort to stop the alien invasion, a collective effort that appeals to the human spirit. The alien enemy is a singular mind that controls an infinite army of extensions of itself. It's not a hive-mind (like the Borg), so the age-old trope of rugged individuality triumphing doesn't seem to apply either. These questions, and the chugging train of the plot, kept me quite interested.

I did not care for Hamilton's retrograde gender disparity and extreme whitewashing. Once it was pointed out that science fiction can imagine infinite aliens but can't fathom black people in space, I can't stop noticing. There's a single black person in this novel. In a cast of hundreds. Most of the cast are recognizably English stereotypes (Hamilton's Englishness is a deep deep element of this novel, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it), which is another way of saying it's a very very white novel. His handling of gender and feminism is childlike and retrograde, with women fulfilling a mix of only three types: the bitch, the slut, and the woman with a heart of gold. Every single character is horny all the time and of course sexual dynamos. Women are always looking to fuck their way up the ladder -- corporate, social, or political -- and men are always looking to benefit from this dynamic. It's very tiring. It's emblematic of science fiction at its absolute worst. However, Hamilton's plotting, scale, and fun make up for this, in a way. I haven't read much like this in a long time and it's very fun. I just wish it wasn't so shitty in terms of women or people of colour.

I really loved Perdido Street Station and loved the world that Mieville created. So it was a smidge disappointing that in the sequel (which is only tangentially related to the first), Mieville leaves the city for the sea. The Scar was good, but it didn't quite have the narrative momentum of his first novel. In fact, the awkwardness of The Scar made me think that this was his first novel and not Perdido Street Station. Though, as anybody who knows me well knows that kraken are a beloved subject matter to me. Despite the structural and plotting weaknesses of this novel, the use of the giant sea monster, hinting at it only, filled me with glee. I wasn't particularly disappointed by the whole of the novel by the time I finished it, though I could see why others would. The novel ends in a purposefully anticlimactic fashion and withholds its major secrets for a surprisingly political reason. Mieville is often lauded as one of the few Marxist fantasy writers, uninterested in the common fetishizing of the crown, and The Scar is a perfect demonstration of that. The main cast of the novel are all citizens of a floating armada of ships salvaged and tied together. Political power is focused on a small groups of people who have fully given into the armada's social structure. Nationalism is an integral component of the armada's success, as they increase their population by pirating, kidnapping, and freeing convicts and others low on the social rungs. New citizens are given jobs based on their abilities and given a wage, a purpose, and a freedom. Thus, their longterm residents are fiercely loyal. When two political figures usurp the purpose of the armada for their own gain, the populace and the other political figures react in complex and believable ways: some are resistant, some are on board, some are resistant but participate out of loyalty. The climax of the novel, one that teeters close to outright fantasy and fairy tale, pulls back from that for a people's revolution against the corrupt leadership. Instead of a fireworks climax full of impossible things, Mieville grounds his ending in a change of regime. It's lovely.

The Scar is again full of these wondrous bizarre things such as a community of mosquito people or a dolphin man, or a prostitute with half of her body human and the other half a tank. But this is no freakshow. Mieville's gaze doesn't ogle or linger disturbingly, leeringly; instead he imbues his characters with humanity, feelings, moods. People's reactions change depending on weather, food, their health. It's a sign of good writing to include moods (beyond "horny" *cough Hamilton cough*). Mieville's protagonist is also a rather complex woman with sexuality, feelings, moods, desires, needs. A good section of the first third depicts the protagonist's romantic and sexual entanglement with another character. Instead of a narrative necessity (love interests at all cost), it's an organic result of her loneliness and her attraction. When this entanglement ends, it's because of their mutual loss of interest, not some dramatic plot point. In other words, it's a mature and rather adult perspective on romance and sex -- a refreshing change from science fiction and fantasy's normal adolescent power and sexual fantasies (eg Game of Thrones and its neverending rapes).

Redemption Ark is both an improvement on Revelation Space and a step backward. It's in dire need of an edit; the novel's far too flabby. It's a great 400 page novel buried in a 650 page tub. The forward momentum of the plot was certainly executed well, a nice change from the languid and scattered beginnings of Revelation Space -- save for the last 150 pages of Redemption Ark -- which could almost entirely be cut as Clavain and Ilia's d├ętente was inevitable. Their space battle had no narrative stakes as the result had to end in only one way. The epilogue, the last 50 pages, was brutally sluggish and not very interesting; it would have been better left unsaid and remained a cliffhanger.

I do respect how... unexcited Reynolds is about women and representation. He doesn't portray women in the usual sci fi manner (sexpot who kills!) nor does he overcorrect the course by featuring a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, the kind that ravages well-meaning male writers' work. Instead, he simply features women, capable, complex, nuanced, and interesting with the same level of focus that he does with male characters. It's refreshing.

In terms of political structure, I see a distrust of oligarchies and hive-minds, but unlike other science fiction writers, Reynolds is exceedingly bleak, almost nihilistic. No political system seems to last long in his future, and governments are almost always corrupt in the end. I wouldn't say that he's espousing a libertarian system if only because even his individual characters are prone to corruption. Redemption Ark as its title implies is also interested in religion and faith. Numerous times, characters demand evidence of something, but have to take what is presented as faith. As technology seems to rule everything, even more so than currency or markets, scientism seems to be the ruling ideology. Yet, Reynolds' characters are constantly faced with things beyond the scope of evidence, beyond perception, beyond rationality. These characters struggle negotiating these impossibilities with their evidence-based reality. However, I don't think that Reynolds is advocating abandoning scientism in favour of faith-based reasoning. It seems to me that Reynolds is cautioning against absolutisms, a reasonable position to take, I should think. Reynolds' bleak and existential vision of the future is both disheartening and inspiring as the main throughline of the two novels seems to the indomitable spirit of humanity. Despite the crushing emptiness of space and the oppression of the alien enemies, humanity lingers on, thanks to a matrix of technology, faith, and basic humanity.

Ah, Iain M. Banks. We've had a long history, he and I. For almost no specific reason, I've managed to avoid his science fiction. I've read almost all of his "literary" works (a couple novels here and there), but never one of his novels that truly paid his salary (he has said a couple times that the sci fi allowed him the freedom to write the lit stuff). I purchased a box set of the first three Culture novels but it gathered dust for years. I had heard that the first one is a bit of a slog and it's best to come back to it, so I skipped Consider Phlebas and went straight to The Player of Games. My word. I am so fucking glad I read this book. This is a goddamn masterpiece of worldbuilding, plotting, political analysis, and character. I knew I was going to love this novel when I found myself reaching for Post-It notes so I could return to the ideas, the prose, the characters. I haven't loved a sci fi novel this much since Leckie's Ancillary Justice. Not surprising, both that novel and Player of Games explicitly criticize an imperialistic political structure. In Banks' novel, the Culture (an anarcho-socialist almost utopia) sends its greatest player of games (any games) to a barbarous Empire built entirely on a) the successful playing of the only game they play, in which the winner of the game is the Emperor and b) ownership, of anything and anybody. Here is the sentient spaceship that the protagonist travels within to this grotesque world:
'a guilty system recognises no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody's either for it or against it, we're against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you amongst its enemies. This might not be your fault, because every society imposes some of its values on those raised within it, but the point is that some societies try to maximise that effect, and some try to minimise it. You come from one of the latter and you're being asked to explain yourself to one of the former. Prevarication will be more difficult than you might imagine; neutrality is probably impossible. You cannot choose not to have the politics you do; they are not some separate set of entities somehow detachable from the rest of your being; they are a function of your existence.' (page 171)
My italics. This is something I'm constantly moaning about on the Internet: no cultural object is produced in a political, cultural, or social vacuum. No matter how, that culture imprints something upon the work, upon the artist, upon the reader. I found it absolutely invigorating to read a science fiction author who not only acknowledges this fact, but makes it an integral part of their political schema. Instead of blathering on about how much I love the novel, let me conclude with a quote from the sentient drone that shows the protagonist, Gurgeh, how truly barbarous this Empire is:
'That's it,' the drone said. 'I'm sorry if what I've shown you has upset you, Jernau Gurgeh, but I didn't want you to leave here thinking the Empire was just a few venerable game-players, some impressive architecture and a few glorified night-clubs. What you've seen tonight is also what it's about. And there's plenty in between that I can't show you; all the frustrations that affect the poor and the relatively well-off alike, caused simply because they live in a society where one is not free to do as one chooses. There's the journalist who can't write what he knows is the truth, the doctor who can't treat somebody in pain because they're the wrong sex… a million things every day, things that aren't as melodramatic and gross as what I've shown you, but which are still part of it, still some of the effects.
'The ship told you a guilty system recognises no innocents. I'd say it does. It recognises the innocence of a young child, for example, and you saw how they treated that. In a sense it even recognises the sanctity of the body… but only to violate it. Once again, Gurgeh, it all boils down to ownership, possession; about taking and having.'
How nice to read science fiction that is both political and coherent in its politics. It's nice that Banks recognizes that the Culture isn't perfect, but it's vastly preferable to a system built entirely on ownership.

Ballard's novel was great. I think a lot of the objections to the novel are located in the monotony, the repetitions, the flatness. None of these things are accidents; Ballard constructed this novel purposefully and with a genius eye for detail. I can't say I enjoyed reading the novel, but as with most Ballard works, I always appreciate how fucking terrific his comparisons, metaphors, and similes are.

Friday, May 1, 2015

April Reads

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
Expiration Date by Tim Powers
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Notes specific to Missoula
I'm uncomfortable with the mansplaining aspect of this book. Inevitably, I'm uncomfortable that it took a man to publish a major work of journalism about rape through by a major publisher. Especially since Joanna Bourke's history of rape is much better, more academic, more rigorous, and has better prose. If Krakauer is going to mansplain rape, at least he could mobilize some better prose.

In terms of journalism, Krakauer's bias is a flag waving proud. He paints such ruthlessly unflattering portraits of those he considers to be the villains that it strains credibility. Even though I'm intrinsically in agreement with Krakauer's thesis (that institutions share the majority of blame for rape culture), I was taken aback by the ad hominems, the shady character assassination, and careful descriptions -- all of which, he contends, the villains do to provide them their villainous status. Simply reporting the facts might have worked better, to paraphrase one of the members of the jury who criticizes the "theatrics" of the defense attorneys.

I was quite pleased by Krakauer's insistence on tricking his readers into agreeing with fundamental feminist principles by explaining the concepts without using the contentious verbiage of "privilege" or "rape culture" or anything else. For those that read feminist theory, none of the contents of this book are surprising in any way. However, for Krakauer's dudebro fanbase, presumably these concepts are brand new and revelatory.

I predict that constructive and productive criticism (in the cultural studies sense of the word of criticism) will be rare and discourse will be limited when speaking of this book. The subject matter is far too important. Any nuance in regards to the book will be met with swift critique as discourse in the age of the Internet is either preposterously positive or overwhelming and existentially negative. Critics of this book, even if they agree with the central thesis, will encounter resistance because to critique an aspect of the book will be confused with critiquing the thesis. Which is another way to say that the deficiencies of this book will be propagated and replicated in subsequent texts, such as the histrionics of Krakauer's narrator and the childlike wonder that jeez, rape does happen on a huge scale.

I must resist reading negative reviews of the book.

Sports fans continue to be the worst fucking people on the planet, apparently.

This was the second time I tried reading Revelation Space and I'm pleased to report that I had a much better time with Reynolds. I'm not sure what the problem was before. Revelation Space though is not perfect -- far from it: the book suffers from first-novel-itis in that it's a bit too long and overstuffed, and not quite focused enough to hold it all together. The characters are more flat than sheets of paper, which does make for some trying moments when Reynolds tries to deploy pathos -- obviously unsuccessfully. This wasn't enough to stop me from reading the book. I was concerned that, at the level of plot, he wouldn't be able to tie it all together, but in the last 30 pages, or maybe even the last 15, he pulls it off. I was quite impressed -- enough to finish it and look forward to the next instalment.

Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher might be my favourite novel of 2015 (though it was published in the 80s). It was just so angry and in a good way. To sum up why I liked this novel so much, let me paraphrase Wikipedia's section on Jelinek's themes: she writes about two things: how patriarchy oppresses women and how capitalism oppresses everybody. That's like catnip for me.

Jelinek's novel is just this angry screed about how women are utterly controlled, repressed, and abused by a social system oriented towards men. There's this phenomenal scene in which the main character reminisces about her youth, when a strapping young Aryan god would entertain his circle of friends by forcing women to their knees in front of him. This is of course completely creepy and a symptom of rape culture. It's also terrifying in the sense that this type of behaviour remains common; perhaps it doesn't manifest in the exact same way, but the spirit of the act persists.

The Piano Teacher is also hilarious. Her descriptions of sex acts remains some of the funniest bits on sex I've ever read. Instead of the kind of self-deprecating while simultaneously boasting tone that many American narcissists use (Updike, Roth, Mailer, Franzen, etc), Jelinek satirizes even the sex act, demonstrating that when such an extreme power differential exists, it's degrading for all parties. The very first major sex scene between the two main characters occurs in a dirty bathroom stall, to provide an idea of the tone Jelinek is going for.

The Price of Salt was pulpy, but way better than her Ripley novels which I forced myself through out of a sense of cultural duty. The novel was the April selection for our Queer Bookclub. I seemed to be the only person who liked it, though.

The Crystal World was early Ballard, and I quite liked it. I didn't love it, but I find the more I read Ballard, the more I get the appeal. He's just unlike any other author. In my previous reviews of Ballard novels, I lamented the lack of characterization, but I was missing the point. I lamented the plot, but I was missing the point. Ballard is writer of ideas and defamiliarization, not of tidy stories and relatable characters.

Expiration Date was my second Tim Powers, and I think I was unduly harsh on my first reading of him. I'm thinking of writing an essay on non-Tolkien fantasy, so I'll hold off from saying much more than I liked Expiration Date. It wasn't as bananas as I had been hoping for, but it was still better fantasy than most schlock I've contemplated reading (*cough* GRRM *cough*)

Thoughts on Neal Stephenson's new novel Seveneves which I abandoned around page 300 (and thus haven't included in the list of read books):

I knew I was going to hate this novel around page 270 when Mr Stephenson, technocrat extraordinaire, decided to spend a page complaining about modern gender theory and "academic leftists" who were wasting time and energy. I had already been put off by the jingoistic libertarian nonsense promulgated through a lot of science fiction and given centre stage in this novel, but this anti-humanities screed was the last straw. It's not just that it's intellectually lazy (it is, though, full of strawmen) or that it's politically objectionable (Stephenson has his heart in the right place). The problem is that it's a propos of nothing. The questionable section is added not as characterization but as polemic. Life is too short for lazy strawmen in fiction.

If you thought the gun-fetish heavy Reamde was Stephenson's worst, don't bother reading this. This novel is even more execrable and contains none of the wit or charm of earlier Stephenson. His prose flops around -- short, declarative sentences that even children could read. There is none of Stephenson's artfulness, none of his ability to defamiliarize the recognizable into beautiful metaphors and similes (such as when he describes, in Quicksilver, I believe, the stream of urine as the arc of a comet). As a fan of Stephenson, I'm wholly disappointed to have trudged through this dreck, hoping for some sort of revelation that this book was worth it. Alas, there is none.

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is a poor man's Kim Stanley Robinson. You'd be better served to read Red Mars; at least the politics are more complex and nuanced than "government is BAD, you guys!"

I keep thinking I'll return to Seveneves but I just can't muster the enthusiasm. I remember quite liking Reamde but fuck there's no accounting for taste, is there?